Landen Elliott-Knaggs is officially coined the Española Valley High School boys cross country coach, but he will be carrying a bulk of the load for both the boys and girls teams this season.
Last year’s head coach, Aaron Salinas, has moved from the High School to take a job working in the Española School District central office, so he will handle more of the paperwork and organizational aspect of coaching while Elliott-Knaggs specializes directly in facilitating practice, training and technique.
Salinas’ official title is the girls head coach.
Heading into the 2019 season, Elliott-Knaggs has aspirations for the Sundevil boys to again make a splash at the state meet after the team last did so in 2017 before his time.
Elliott-Knaggs’ clearer view of what he hopes the boys team can become by the District 2-4A championship and state meet starts with the return of one of his top runners, junior Juan Branch, who sat out last season due to injury.
"Branch was definitely our top runner in track last year and I think he was pretty strong his freshman year before he got injured playing basketball,” Elliott-Knaggs said. “I have no doubt he’ll come out here and continue to perform for us.”
Junior Terrance Sanchez was the lone Sundevil who competed at state last season — finishing 58th overall — but his return to the team will be delayed while he battles through injuries.
“I’m hoping to get him back sooner than later,” Elliott-Knaggs said. “He’s a really strong and aggressive runner, as you can see by being our guy who made state last year.”
Sophomore Andry Lujan has the potential to creep up toward the No. 2 spot with Sanchez’s absence, and Elliott-Knaggs has already seen a new-and-improved attitude from Lujan.
“Andry has been 10 times more focused than he was last year and is in really good shape,” Elliott-Knaggs said. “As for the rest of the boys, it depends who shows up, but Dominic is also looking really good and it’s a really young team. All the guys have a ton of potential.”
Dominic Maestas, Jose Castro and Raymond Lujan are the other Sundevils on the roster who return with experience. Overall, the boys team will have at least 14 runners, with the sophomore class being the largest group.
The goal for the boys will be to nab third place in the District 2-4A championship, as the top three teams from that meet are awarded automatic state berths.
The District championship meet will be held in Moriarty this year, and Elliott-Knaggs specifically added the Moriarty Invite on Sept. 14 to the schedule to give his runners the advantage of seeing the course prior to the District championship.
“It’s really great for runners to be familiar with the course, especially for a meet like that,” Elliott-Knaggs said. “A lot of them can remember a course from the year before, but it’s even better for them to have a familiarity with it and remember it from the same season.”
While Los Alamos is the defending state champions and still considered the District favorite, Española will have to work to edge out either Pojoaque Valley, Moriarty or Taos High School for the third-place spot.
“I don’t know what is coming out of Moriarty and Pojoaque but Pojoaque lost John Hall, and they were pretty thin on boys last year too,” Elliott-Knaggs said. “So, I think we can beat Pojoaque and Moriarty if the kids show up and train. I think all three schools are the same caliber — both boys and girls. If we have five serious girls, I think we can place third as well.”
From day one of practice on Aug. 12 to the team’s scrimmage at Pojoaque on Aug. 24, the girls team has grown from just two runners to eight total. The two strongest and dedicated runners are senior Alysia Martinez and junior Emily Chavez.
Española will begin its season on Saturday at the New Mexico Lobo Cross Country Invitational in Albuquerque at the UNM North Golf Course.
“It’s a big meet and I like the course,” Elliott-Knaggs said. “It’s pretty flat and it’s all grass, which can be kind of slow, but it’s the first one and we get to see a lot of the other teams we’re up against.”
Pojoaque Valley High School cross country coach Allan Lockridge had one message for his runners on the eve of the scrimmage the team hosted on Aug. 24 to start the brand new season.
With the boys and girls first official meet approaching on Aug. 31 at the Cleveland High School Invite in Rio Rancho, Lockridge wanted his runners to release all their nerves prior to the first actual competition of the new year.
“You’re going to run tomorrow because you can’t be scared when we get to the first meet,” Lockridge said to the team huddled under the practice tent. “Be scared tomorrow.”
Lightning and thunderstorms poured over the Valley on the afternoon of Aug. 23, so the team moved practice into the crowded Ben Luján Gymnasium, where the volleyball team was at work and the football team was having their pregame meal prior to their first game of the season against Shiprock High School.
“Life isn’t far,” Lockridge said. “We’ll do what we have to do to get by.”
That could very well be the theme of the season for the District 2-4A Elks, who are coming off a seventh place overall finish in Class 4A at the state meet last season.
The usual face of John Hall has graduated and moved on with his running career at New Mexico Highlands University, so the Elks will look to a trio of seniors for leadership this season.
Joseph Gutierrez finished 40th overall at state last year, and returns as the most experienced runner for the Elks.
“All we can do is give it our all this year,” Gutierrez said. “We need to train hard, but also have fun. This year will be a building year because we do have a lot of new kids and young kids.”
Luckily, Pojoaque will receive contributions from two new, but old seniors. Donovan Lujan and Dylan Romero both transferred back to Pojoaque this year after leaving the High School previously.
Prior to his move to Washington State for his junior year, Lujan helped the Elks capture a runner-up finish in 2016 at state.
“Donovan was our fourth runner on our team that finished second that year,” Lockridge said. “His return really helps us and he’s going to be OK, he just has to get it going and get back into it.”
While Hall’s younger brother, Zach Hall, didn’t compete at state last year as a sophomore due to injury, he will be motivated to make strides this season as a junior.
Joining him will be fellow junior Santiago Romero, who was the Elks No. 2 placer at state last year, finishing 27th overall with a time of 17 minutes, 43.85 seconds on the championship course at Rio Rancho High School.
Also filling out the team — with state experience — are sophomores Lucas Tiede, Matthew Gomez and Isaiah Roybal.
Lockridge said he expects a handful of eighth-graders to step up as the season gradually proceeds.
The Elkettes placed 13th overall at state last season out of 15 teams, and will most likely find themselves in somewhat of a rebuild like the boys.
One thing is for sure, and that is they will lean on senior leaders Michaela Martinez and Mia Vigil.
The pair finished just slightly apart at state last year, as Martinez came in at 45th overall and Vigil followed close by in 48th.
Vigil paced to a 22:13.20 that day, but she has her goals set on setting a new personal record this season.
“I want to run good times and improve my time every time out,” she said. “I’m hoping and trying to beat my PR time from last year, and that was 21:20 at the Capital City in Santa Fe when I got 10th place.”
Aside from the two seniors, the remainder of the team will feature sophomore Rayannon Velarde and freshman Ayla Garcia. Both did compete at state last season as well.
Lockridge will have a large pool of eighth-graders to choose from to fill the remaining voids on the roster, as 12 of the overall eighth graders are girls compared to boys.
“I look forward to running with this young group of girls this year, including running my last year with my sister (Marisa, eighth-grader),” Martinez said. “We’ll have to build up a team because we’re struggling with numbers, but I think when we get some girls, hopefully we can place higher up than we did last year.”
Martinez will also run again under her parents, who are assistant coaches Gloria and Randy Martinez.
Out of all the questions marks concerning the boys and girls rosters that will be answered in the coming weeks, the stagnant part of the program is still Lockridge.
The head coach is back for his 38th season at the helm, and many of the runners who have vast experience working alongside him said he hasn’t changed a bit.
“He’s still the same guy,” Vigil said. “He’s the same old legend.”